A few weeks ago, a disabled friend was talking about a proposed strike action and discussing the fact that walking out of work as an hourly employee wasn’t really tenable. Lost wages are a problem, and more critically, the risk of losing a job is pretty significant when you’re counting on that job for health insurance and the income you need to survive. It’s not tenable to walk out under those conditions without a guarantee of support from people organising and supporting a strike.
Someone, of course, arrived to hotly insist that change takes ‘sacrifice’ and that if you have to experience a little hardship to make a difference, so be it. The net benefit is worth the suffering.
I cannot stress enough how wildly privileged, rude, and unhelpful this kind of thinking is, and I encounter it a lot, especially from people who are new to resistance and political organising. Those people are also usually privileged, without a lot of experience in situations that might give them a better depth of understanding when it comes to what is at stake for some people. Resistance can be fatal. Telling someone that they are required to ‘sacrifice’ for your ideals by putting their bodies and lives on the line is abhorrent. Supporting someone who wants to make that choice, and trying to make it less dangerous, is great, but don’t tell people to sacrifice.
‘Sacrifice’ is an incredibly loaded and complicated word, and many people who use it this way don’t really think about it. They don’t consider the fact that it’s often associated with lack of choice — with being the sacrifice, rather than sacrificing yourself. They also don’t consider the complex Christian overtones embedded in the notion of telling someone to sacrifice their body for a cause — not everyone wants to die on the cross, and not everyone thinks that is an effective method of advocating for justice and equality.
And they don’t think about the fact that this term, ‘sacrifice,’ has been used in a lot of very damaging ways when it comes to narratives surrounding people in marginalised communities. Women should sacrifice their aspirations, dreams, and skills to further the goals of their husbands, up to and including having children and raising them at home. People ‘sacrifice’ to take care of disabled family members and elders. Older siblings are expected to ‘sacrifice’ for the benefit of younger siblings. People of colour are often expected to ‘sacrifice’ by waiting their turn, surely the good stuff will come around next time, it’s just a coincidence that it’s the white people who keep getting the promotions. People are supposed to subvert their identities, to sacrifice their lives and beliefs, to fit in and be accepted, to assimilate.
‘Sacrifice’ comes with an incredible amount of baggage for people who have spent their whole lives being told to sacrifice, and who are accustomed to think of sacrifice not as something immense given up to benefit all of humanity, but specifically something precious and important surrendered to those in positions of dominance. ‘Sacrifice’ comes with a sharp, bitter taste, and it’s one that often evokes feelings of hurt and frustration and also anger.
We have sacrificed enough for you. You have no idea how much we have sacrificed.
The person you’re berating about not being willing to endure ‘a little discomfort’ for the common good has probably been through things you really cannot imagine, and may have given up so much to be where they are. Maybe that person didn’t go to college because they have to care for younger siblings and they lost a window of opportunity. Maybe that person had to give up a beloved job because their disability made it impossible to keep working. Maybe that person had to live in stealth for a decade to accrue enough benefits to leave a company and start transitioning. Maybe that person had to never invite her wife to any family events, ever, because she didn’t want to be cut off even though their homophobia made her feel like garbage every time she saw them.
You don’t know what people have endured and sacrificed by looking at them. And when people talk about issues surrounding privilege, your dismissive attitude just underscores their point. That student who says it’s not possible to join a walkout and who asks that people consider alternate methods of resistance? Maybe she’s undocumented and terrified of being picked up by police. Maybe they’re here on a visa and they’re well aware that the government could cancel it at any point. Maybe he’s on academic probation and doesn’t want to rock the boat, desperately needs to finish his degree so he can carve out a life for himself that doesn’t involve slinking back home and working in low-wage, backbreaking labour until he’s 40 and his body is worn out and he sits on the couch at night drinking beer and remembering how he wanted to be an attorney.
When someone says that they can’t do something, consider the fact that maybe the thing motivating that person isn’t laziness or unwillingness to engage with the issue or a refusal to participate in a collaborative effort to make the world better. Consider the fact that perhaps they are doing things you can’t see, that they can’t take the risks you can, that maybe they have different modes of activism. There’s no one right way to change the world, and those with privilege should wield it productively to expand opportunities, rather than to beat people who cannot get through the door you seem to think is wide enough just because you happen to fit through it.
Image: rocks, Corey.C, Flickr